By Magreth Nunuhe
Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe this week suspended poultry imports from South Africa with immediate effect following outbreaks of the highly contagious H5N8 bird flu, in a move that observers say may threaten the viability of the poultry sector in the region.
Zimbabwe banned poultry and poultry products from South Africa following an outbreak of Avian influenza in Mpumalanga province.
The director of the country’s department veterinary services Dr Josephat Nyika said the ban would remain in force for an indefinite period up to when South Africa’s veterinary officials would have indicated that the problem had been resolved.
However, the Zimbabwe veterinary services department said the ban would not have much impact on the country because the majority of Zimbabwean farmers were not importing live birds from South Africa.
Poultry production has been taking place on a small and large scale in Zimbabwe, with local farmers now supplying the bulk of poultry and poultry products consumed in the country. Zimbabwe was hit by the influenza early this month which left Irvines Private Limited, one of the country’s largest poultry producers, put under quarantine after the virus killed 7 000 birds. The company had to depopulate by slaughtering 142 000 birds to prevent the spread of the disease.
South Africa has confirmed outbreaks of avian flu, which is often transmitted by wild birds, on at least two farms.
South Africa and Mozambique subsequently banned poultry imports from Zimbabwe .
Botswana, which imports only five percent of its poultry needs, said it would no longer buy poultry meat, processed products and feeds from South Africa.
“The restriction is a precautionary measure to avoid equal infection here as well as protect our people,” agriculture minister Patrick Ralotsia told Reuters.
Namibia also halted imports from South Africa and Belgium, which experienced an outbreak of bird flu earlier this year.
South Africa stopped the sale of live hens throughout the country on Monday in a bid to control the outbreak on the farm of a commercial broiler breeder last week.
Poultry producer Astral, which had previously confirmed that H5N8 had been detected at its breeding facilities on the outskirts of the Free State, said on Tuesday it had quarantined the affected site and culled 150,000 birds, about six percent of its breeding stock
In Namibia, I chief veterinary officer, Milton Maseke, confirmed that all previously issued import and in-transit permits of poultry and poultry products were cancelled and recalled with immediate effect.
“Since the incubation period of the disease is 21 days as set by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the suspension will take effect 21 days prior to the date of start of the event,” he said.
“Cooked poultry meat products from South Africa for commercial purposes may still be imported into Namibia under the revised veterinary import permit.”
Maseke cautioned the public that the disease could be transmitted to humans through handling and coming into close contact with infected poultry as well as consuming poultry products from infected poultry.
However, the chairperson of the Poultry Producers Association, Renè Werner, said he was confident the situation would be resolved fast in order to lift Namibia’s ban of poultry imports.
“There is no problem with the 21-day ban. It’s actually very good so that we don’t get it (virus) here,” he added, adding that he had learnt that South Africa had put the situation under control since the outbreak of the bird disease.
Werner warned that should the poultry ban take longer or up to a year, it could affect Namibia economically as there would be a decline in the supply of eggs and new chicks.
He said Waldschmidt Eggs Namibia was the only local large scale supplier of eggs, while many of the other small to medium sized producers relied mainly on South Africa.
“There could be a big shortfall and it would also affect the poor people, who sell eggs for a living,” he stressed.
Werner also mourned that the price for poultry produce could go up as demand increased and that there was a need for investment in new point of lay chickens. “Every farm has a cycle and every month we sell off old chickens.
We do rotation, but the rotation is broken now,” he said.
Werner said that the biggest fear was that in summer, wild birds migrating to Namibia might carry the disease.
Louis Kleynhans, operations manager at Namib Poultry Industries, said that the company already supplied 70 percent of poultry to the Namibian market.
He, however, argued that the suspension of South African and Belgian poultry did not mean other countries with import quotas to Namibia could not do so.
He said the NPI’s stock production was good in the short term and suspension of the two countries’ products would not affect the price of poultry products in Namibia.
Another producer, Eckard Waldschmidt of Waldschmidt Eggs Namibia, said the moratorium on poultry and poultry products from South Africa and Belgium would not affect their industry as 80 percent of their production was local.
Bu he added that if the ban was in place for a long time, it could affect the supply of poultry and become more costly.
Waldschmidt Eggs Namibia have been raising own hens since 1959 in Namibia, while the chicks are imported from the Netherlands and Germany.
Consumers have in the past complained about high chicken prices by Namibian producers and demanded that government reconsider allowing full chicken imports again, especially from South African where prices are said to be much lower.
The Namibian Cabinet introduced the Infant Industry Protection (IIP) to the Namibian poultry industry as local producers are not able to match the prices of imported products being offered to local retailers, and cannot break even with such prices.